Orford Ness: the apocalyptic art zone at war with nature

Orford Ness: the apocalyptic art zone at war with nature

isIt is one of Britain’s strangest landscapes, a spit of land off the Suffolk coast littered with the rusty junk of a mysterious and sinister past. Over the decades, musicians, filmmakers, artists and writers have been sucked into its ghostly orbit, captivated by what the great existential wanderer WG Sebald imagined to be “the remnants of our own civilization after its extinction in a future catastrophe”.

It is now a nature reserve, but for much of the 20th century Orford Ness was forbidden territory, isolated for military purposes from the village whose church and picture book castle can be seen from its beach in sorry pebbles. In 2014, Anya Gallaccio captured the decades of anxiety surrounding Ness with a series of extremely magnified photographs of a pebble believed to have been fractured by WWI bomb experiments. Jamiroquai used his bizarre colonnaded pagodas – designed in the 1950s to collapse on themselves if a nuclear experiment went wrong – for Automaton’s dystopian video.

Three of the last artists to be drawn to it – as part of a collaboration between Artangel and the National Trust, which bought the site from the Department of Defense in 1993 – have filled its spooky abandoned buildings with installations: Alice Channer has created a triffid- like plant growing bladed tentacles through the window frames of an abandoned shelter; Tatiana Found imagined the remains of a moldy survivalist community in the puddles of a roofless laboratory; and Emma McNally flowed a rippling sea of ​​silver paper through the old arsenal.

The problem with any visual response is that it’s hard to match the disorienting gloom of Orford Ness himself, which is in part due to the myths surrounding him. In his psycho-geographic travelogue The Rings of Saturn, Sebald spoke of a “horrific incident” in the nearby village of Shingle Street in 1942, possibly involving an unreported Nazi invasion or a military exercise gone awry. . Why else would the Defense Department extend the embargo from 30 to 75 years on a case mysteriously titled Evacuation of Civilians from Shingle Street, Suffolk? When the files were finally opened in 1992, after lobbying the local press, they turned out to contain nothing very secret – but it did little to quell rumors of the deadly rays. , nerve gas and oil hells.

“Triffid-like plant growing bladed tentacles” … The lethality and vulnerability of Alice Channer. Photography: Thierry Bal/Artangel/National Trust

But there is another story in Orford Ness that this new exhibition – titled Afterness and which lasts until the fall – addresses, a story that speaks even more strongly in our time. Over the centuries, this part of the coast has been at war of attrition with nature. In 1627, a single storm destroyed 32 ships, which were shattered by the moving pebbles. Eleven lighthouses were built to guide sailors through the deadly darkness, most of them swept away by the sea. The most recent, dating from 1792, was the last functional building on the Ness until it was decommissioned in 2013. Fine that it was finally demolished last year, this lighthouse has now become part of the myth, surviving in a spectral outline with the dawn above Cobra Mist, an evocative film by Emily Richardson that makes a disturbing site visit to a Chris Watson soundtrack. His recordings of Ness, From Seagulls to Waves and Howling Winds, are also part of Afterness, echoing atop an old wireless black beacon as part of the Library of Sound.

Months before its demolition, the lighthouse was commemorated in a film and music project by singer-songwriter Thomas Dolby, as the symbolic center of a “documentary” from the region in which he grew up. Orford Ness “has seeped into my changes of chords and lyrics,” he says in The Invisible Lighthouse, which begins with a sweeping beam of light as handwritten words appear on the screen. “My ancestors came from Europe thousands of years ago,” they say as the light returns. “They walked. There was no North Sea at the time.

Nuclear test sites… the “pagodas” of Orford Ness. Photography: Johny Pitts

The phone and drone technology used by Dolby was cutting edge in 2013, but is already as outdated as the old aviator glasses it wore. “It was a valuable project,” he says. “I have a childhood memory of watching Orford Ness flash on my bedroom wall as I fell asleep at night. But years later, the light seemed too dim for that to be true. This led me to an investigation into false memories and the power of self-suggestion. In the film, he speculates that the same beam may have been responsible for a UFO sighting by US servicemen in nearby Rendlesham Forest in 1980.

For Dolby, Orford Ness recalls that England itself is slowly and inexorably rocking east into the North Sea as Britain’s northwest rises. Robert Macfarlane captures the attritional swoosh and sloosh of this process in his prose poem Ness, illustrated by Stanley Donwood with engravings of the very buildings that are now revived by Afterness. “Drift,” Macfarlane writes, “is a global shaper, compounding over time, acknowledging its debts to the plastics and fishing industries, and to the global capital flows that determine the dominant trade cutters … drift is incredibly large and if you were to describe Drift you would need a new kind of map and a new kind of language. Drift’s only end would be the end of the oceans, which in turn would be the end of the planet. “

A visitor discovers Ilya Kaminsky's sound walk, I See a Silence (2021) over Orford Ness, Suffolk.
A visitor discovers Ilya Kaminsky’s sound walk, I See a Silence (2021) over Orford Ness, Suffolk. Photography: Artangel/National Trust

It is in this flood of melancholy that the Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky draws, in the small masterpiece that will remain as the legacy of Afterness, long after the works have been dismantled and the buildings left to the birds. and hares. I See a Silence is a cycle of 42 poems, some of which are only a few lines long, that accompany you with headphones as you travel the six mile path around the Ness, between signs warning of unexploded ordnance surrounding you. . “Ness runs out,” Kaminsky writes, “with larks, boat engines, seagulls, gravel, with the awkward silence of an empty stairwell in the ballistics building, with hen steps , knowing that the silence of the living is visible in Ness, in your lungs and in mine, in the bumblebee of a single bee.

Kaminsky has never been to Orford Ness, and he has never heard the hum of a single bee because – as the opening poem makes clear – he is deaf. Forbidden to visit by the pandemic, he confides: “In the end I was lucky not to go. I was given this strange chance not go and be a documentary maker. Rather, I had to ask: what is the metaphysics of the place? And what is the wonder / game of that? What is real about someone who has never visited? Because it’s still my planet, so it must be real. Just scratch the surface and see the planet.

In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald is terrified by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a hare, while Kaminsky is weary of the “metaphysical bumfluff” of rabbits. As I munch along the deserted beach, his poems ringing in my ears, I begin to wonder if there are any hares left today; why should they come to this place of salt and stones; if they blew themselves up while straying out of the way. Then my foot slips and I look down. Toward where I imagine the lighthouse once stood, there’s a bunch of “metaphysical bumfluffs” in an oasis of thorny greenery. It’s kind of very funny. The ultimate message from this project and place is that all that will survive of us is sea cabbage and rabbit poo, feeding on each other, with no need for “us” at all.


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